By Fred Iwenjora
At 80 years, prolific author, human rights activist, fashion designer, community leader Chief Mrs. Adaobi Whyte must have seen and read plenty.
With five books to her credit namely; Abuse of the Nigerian child, Plight of the Nigerian woman, Dr. Peter Otunuya Odili; Threading the path of Destiny (a biography), Ndoni Kingdom and peaceful coexistence and her latest offering, How Africans vandalise Africa (Focusing Nigeria), Adaobi Whyte has tried to entrench her style and character upon her avid readers
In this chat, she reveals that those books enjoying great reviews from readers worldwide never came from the brains of a formally educated person but from the unwavering audacity of someone who never passed through any secondary schools or any universities.
Second shocker was that she painstakingly wrote them while lying down on her bed no thanks to her debilitating battle with a back ailment that has caused her not to sit comfortably for too long.
With several books to your credit, writing seems to come easy to you…
Noooo ..hahahahah. It does not come so easily o especially with my protracted illness. My perpetual back ache makes it very difficult to sit down properly. I have written all my books lying down on the bed. The back pain never allows me to sit on the table. I believe it is the grace of God that has made these possible.
And to realize that you did not have formal education…
I even marvel at it myself considering my level of education and just thank God. I formed the habit of reading from youth and from there I developed interest in writing. You see, God has taught me many things in all aspects as I just end up writing just like that. I taught myself by practicing and taking it as a hobby and improving on my reading as well as my writing.
I also taught myself dress-making. However, I regret that even with the many years I spent learning all I have taught myself, I still possess no certificates to show. So let my books become my certificates. Teaching yourself takes many more years than being taught. You learnt by trial and errors, by failing and trying harder until you conquer. In area of dress making and fashion designs, it took me many years as I never went to pay any one to teach me. I started by practicing. As a young woman I had no machines. All I did was to continue to cut materials and borrowing sewing machines from older women. It was like this until I discovered paper sewing patterns at Kingsway store. This discovery helped me improve my interest and to develop until I was able to set up a fashion school, Suedest Fashions at Tejuosho street, near Barracks Bus stop, Lagos. This fashion house and school ran for many years until I retired
Your latest book is being talked about worldwide…what did you try to address in it?
How Africans vandalise Africa, focusing Nigeria is a book that exposes and laments the destiny, slave mentality and wickedness of the black man. The indigenous slave trade, the cross Atlantic slave trade, importation of artificial Christianity and Islam into Africa, religious exploitation, commercialization, fanaticism and hypocrisy, colonization and independence and how Africans have engaged in vandalisation and destruction of the continent since independence. They have enthroned themselves as slave masters, dictators and sit-tight leaders, creating obstacles to the development of the rich continent.
You just marked your 80th birthday…life must have taught you plenty?
At 80 years I give glory to God because everything I have done, I have always done them naturally. People often ask which schools I attended and I often tell anybody who would listen to me that I attended God’s Natural School and I have graduated in colors from that institution with the highest awards and certificate presented to me by Almighty God himself. This makes me different. My ideas are a bit different from those who attended orthodox schools.
And when I write, it is not cosmetic. You feel the raw things as I feel them as an African living in Africa. People often tell me I should not write the way I write. They wished I were more cosmetic. That is why I have written this book; How Africans vandalise Africa in a very raw way. This kind of book has not come out of Africa before now. Africa prefers praise singers who say you are giants while you are not.
Tell me more about this journey to self development
I recall my journey of self development started when I started work at Nigeria Industrial Development Bank which has now become Bank of Industry. It was then run by Late Mr. Gamaliel Onosede. I worked as receptionist in an environment filled with educated women. Most of them had returned from Europe and Americas and other overseas countries and occupied different departments of the company.
As we worked together, they kind of dragged me up in terms of etiquette, eloquence and poise. I was brushed clean. They bought different kinds of newspapers and magazines like woman’s own, women’s Digest, etc. I joined them in reading whatever they had to read that it became a habit.
Many who know you may have tasted your life of activism, where do you trace this character?
I think my interest in activism and issues of human rights is inborn. My people still wonder why I was born a woman rather than a man. They wonder how a girl child should come in my mold as I interact with men more than I do with women. I like to be talking about social development; I mean issues men talk about rather than talk more about food and fashion.
My husband helped me in nurturing this knack for self development by buying me interesting books which I read voraciously. I developed my world view causing people to think I had been abroad. My farthest journey outside this country has been to South Africa for treatment. And it was a few years ago. I have never been to Europe or America.
You talk often about the tragedy of the black man..could you elaborate?
I started my mental development drive from learning about my personal history including my home town of Ndoni and then spreading across Nigeria and its governance. I also read about other peoples of the world. I found out that the black man is the most wicked to himself. He does not like or love what belongs to him. He hates his brother so treats him like a slave. Asians also suffered colonization. Rome colonized Britain, Britain colonized America.
Yet after colonization, they all stand up and pick up. Now why must the black man continue to blame colonialism for his problems all his life? As I continued to follow up on my readings, pause and ponder, I discovered that there is no race in the world that hurts his brothers and sisters more than the black man. There is no race that sold its people as slaves like the black man did.
If you check the labour of all our heroes of independence and freedom fighters and compare it with how we have fared since they won independence, you will see that we have not fared well at all. Can someone tell me what we have benefitted from our freedom than self destruction?
The Europeans came with their might and mowed us down in Africa and this history makes me weep. I even denounced my English name Sussana as colonial because of this. Now having seen what the black man is doing to himself, will I now reject my native name?
I even also added another colonial name Whyte as per marriage…(hahahahahahah) Beyond these I am full of shock considering the level of the black man’s hatred for his brother. We have lost our national identity. Today, we have no religion of our own and decided we would be in churches and mosques daily with priests daily telling us stories of Israel and Arabia. We do not know our own history or the story of Africa.
We are operating on a borrowed culture and tradition so I doubt when development will come to Africa. So you see Africa is half caste in the world and may never move forward until it charts its own course. Religious and political leaders are doing their best stealing the continent blind. It is self inflicted poverty and has no cure. This is what is addressed in my latest book; How Africans vandalise Africa. Please get a copy and see the direction I am pointing at.
As an indigene of the Niger Delta, it seems like degradation continues…..
I never stop on my lamentation concerning the people of the Niger Delta. That is where I come from. As the treasure base of the nation I have not stopped wondering why the place is a slum.
The governors, senators, House of Reps members and indeed all political officers are stealing either officially or underground. It is this extension of self inflicted wickedness that has left us in recession. I want to say that the politicians of all the political divides including of the PDP and APC should return their loots and restore the dignity of Nigeria and the black man
Any recollections of your birth, youth and upbringing?
I was born in 1937. Let me tell you how I arrived at that date because I did not also know. Like Obasanjo’s, my parents were illiterate so they couldn’t even have noted down dates of birth. But there is one man from my community who was highly literate and noted that one of his sisters who was said to be younger than me with seven days was born May 12.
And adding seven days to that made my date of birth May 19. That was how I got my birth date so I am 80 years young. I left Ndoni my home village situated east of the Niger at the age of eleven years and went to Jos with my auntie. It was at Jos that I could say I spent my youth days. It was until I got married in 1961 that I came to Lagos to live with my husband.
What has life taught you in the past 80 years?
Life has been wonderful according to how God made it. It has been full of challenges. I had two broken marriages. Yet I have big cause to thank God for life so well lived. Even with the protracted illness, God has given me ability in disability, provided for me even in the wilderness and gave me water in the desert. I discovered that God kept angels for me at all bridges of my life. And when I think of all the interactions and challenges and tremendous respect I have received from men especially from my community, I feel overwhelmed that God loves me dearly.
I have seen communities where men and women do not attend same meeting but my people of Ndoni had over the years given me the audacity to rise above life’s occasion. I was Deputy President General of my community association and then was President General. No other woman has achieved this and I am grateful to my people for reposing much trust in me and giving me the opportunity to excel. I am one of the few if not the only woman from my community honored with a Chieftaincy title
You have written several books on Nigerian woman and girl child, do you think that the Nigerian woman has fared well in our sociopolitical life?
Women especially Nigerian women are more cosmetic and fashion conscious than the men and I think that is why I flow with the men. Women will talk about uniforms and style. May be it is my body make- up. Men are more active.
In all I dare say that women in Nigeria in general terms have not done so well because even when men give us the chance, we trivialize it. We enjoy the entertainment, fashion and uniforms. Several women do not belong to associations where there are no uniforms to sew. Once I was part of a committee but the six of us women took uniforms while the men did not bother.
All Nigeria women do in political circles is dance and sing choruses and party while the men or the few articulate women plot their ways. May be it could have been different if the men made the political atmosphere a little less stormy and conducive for all to participate. Our men operate in a jungle-like environment and not every woman can cope. Our men perhaps are too violent because they are working for the interest of their pockets and not of the country.
Many who know your history and antecedents know you as a very courageous woman. Where do you think that that courage comes from?
I like to link my courage for activism to my great grandfather whose two sisters owned war boats. The three cannons standing in my home town today were owned by my aunties and that tells you much about my heritage. So I trace my courage and activism to my lineage. People have always advised “don’t do that … they will kill you” but I have always done things and nothing ever happened. No one has killed me. So I must have inherited some of these traits from my family
Could you then throw some light on this family of yours?
I have had two failed marriages but I see it as life and the way it goes.
When I heard that Winnie Mandela and Nelson were divorcing, I asked myself why it ever happened. I never expected Nelson and Winnie to divorce. But I give God the glory of giving me the courage to cope. My second marriage just crashed just like that.
My husband just abandoned me just like that. We had no quarrel and no fight. He complained that I had given him five girls so he carried his box and abandoned me. Marriage is a lot of complication. I still wonder why people divorce. It still baffles me how couples can’t patch up their differences. One is trying to change the other yet it does not work. There are things we could change but can we?
What is happening to the marriage institution? If you look well, you would see that it looks like polygamy is succeeding more than monogamy. There seems to be more honesty in polygamy than in monogamy we see these days. In monogamy, he has a wife at home but many others on the streets.
You find our men spending more time out in hotels than at home. You look at life in whole and see plenty complications so humans should try to make the most out of it. That is what I have tried to do. I decided not to wallow in self pity…oooh I am a widow…ooh I am divorced. All are human nature.
What inspired your first book?
My first book is on problems of the Nigerian Child and it was inspired by many things I saw as a teenager. I started to observe divorce and widowhood. I observed how couples were fighting daily with neighbours clapping so to speak or trying to separate them. Then also came Plight of Nigerian woman. The two books came in 2002.